23rd Dec, 2020 Read time 5 minutes

Managing skin exposure at work: a brief look at HSG262

Work-related skin disease (e.g. dermatitis) can affect people in a wide range of occupations. For workers, the APC approach (avoid, protect, check) is useful for helping to reduce the chances of suffering painful and sometimes debilitating skin conditions. 

However, many materials used at work can affect the skin or can pass through the skin and cause diseases elsewhere in the body and employers must do all that they can to minimise risk. 

HSG262 offers guidance on assessing and managing risks, reducing contact with harmful materials, choosing the right protective equipment and skin care products, and checking for early signs of skin disease.

In this article, we’ve briefly touched on some of the ways in which you can manage skin exposure at work. 

How to manage skin exposure at work

Using barrier creams

Attention to proper skincare will help to protect the skin by reducing the effects of exposure and keeping skin healthy. 

Employees must:

  • Ensure accidental contamination is washed away promptly
  • Wash the skin with warm water and dry thoroughly, preferably with a clean, dry, soft towel
  • Apply any creams that may be of benefit before and after shifts

Employers must:

  • Encourage employees to wash areas of skin regularly that may have been exposed to hazardous substances 
  • Provide clean washing facilities as near as possible to the area of work
  • Provide the least aggressive cleaning products that will do the job 
  • Pre-work creams can be applied before starting work or on returning from a break

Pre-work creams are designed for application at the start of work, after breaks, etc, and there are a few types which we have highlighted below:

  • Vanishing creams

    These trap contaminants such as resins and dyes, and can then be washed off the skin. They may contain refined mineral oil, petrolatum, lanolin, emulsifiers, preservatives, and fragrances.
  • Water-resistant creams

    These form a film over the skin surface that repels water-based chemicals, and as a result they can sometimes feel quite greasy. They can contain silicones, beeswax, stearates, preservatives, fragrances and synthetic tanning agents.
  • Oil/organic solvent-resistant creams

    These creams are designed to repel oils, tars and organic solvents. They may contain glycerine, preservatives and fragrances and these creams can come off through sweating.
  • Other types of pre-work cream react chemically with the contaminant to make it less harmful, such as making something less acidic.

Employees should consider which creams that have the best repellent properties for the substances in their workplace. Employers may want to consider getting employees who may be at risk from skin exposure an appointment with a dermatologist so that the most effective skin care solutions can be found. 

The use of barrier creams should not be considered as personal protective equipment (PPE) though. It provides negligible protection and is unlikely to be effective in preventing contact dermatitis. The benefit of pre-work/barrier creams is in preventing dirt from becoming so ingrained that it is difficult to remove.

Using skin cleaners

Skin cleaners are good as they help to remove contaminants from the skin, but they can also damage it. Skin cleansers should be chosen that do the job in the least aggressive way, so that there is no unnecessary stress being caused to the skin.

Washing with water alone may spread contaminants around the skin, rather than remove them and so the benefits of cleansers cannot be ignored. 


Whether a cream, lotion or ointment, these are all moisturisers or emollients. The purpose of moisturisers is to help replace moisture and temporarily restore the barrier effect of the skin. This allows the moisture in the barrier layer to be restored by natural processes within the body. 

These creams, lotions, etc should applied at least once a day, preferably more frequently, but ideally each time the hands are washed and dried throughout the day

Protect the skin by using PPE 

PPE is an important control option when other reasonably practicable methods of control do not give enough protection. However, PPE has a number of limitations: it can only protect the wearer; it has to be the right material and the right size; it has to be put on, worn and taken off properly; it may limit the wearer’s mobility; its continued effectiveness will depend on proper cleaning, maintenance, training and supervision. 

PPE is available in a wide range of materials, with typical examples including gloves, aprons, overalls, and footwear for skin protection. 

PPE needs to be of good quality and fit for the purpose it is being used for. This means it must be CE marked, fit the wearer, be suitable for the task and compatible with any other PPE to be worn. It is critical that PPE is used properly, as it can actually increase the risk of skin exposure when used incorrectly. 

Companies must provide employees with adequate and comprehensible information, instruction and training on the PPE they will be required to use. They must also ensure that any PPE is suitably maintained.

This is a brief overview on how to manage skin exposure at work, you can find more guidance from the Health and Safety Executive here

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